Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

American Literary Realism and the Problem of Trompe l'Oeil Painting

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

American Literary Realism and the Problem of Trompe l'Oeil Painting

Article excerpt

Much recent new historical criticism of American literary realism has relied on a metaphorics of vision: the realist aim for objectivity promulgates an ideology of transcendence and distance, as the realist assumes a false position "above" or "outside" the world, transforming the subjects of their representations into reified objects of imperial gazes. For example, Amy Kaplan argues that realists adopted a middle-class view, "actively constructing the coherent social world they represent," a public sphere that contained and controlled the threatening lower classes (9). June Howard argues that the naturalists viewed the working- or lower-class "brute" figure from the perspective "of the observant and articulate naturalist in close conference with his reader. [...] The author and reader and the characters who represent them inhabit a privileged location, assuming a kind of control over forces and events through their power to comprehend them" (x). Surveying and constructing the real in a display of power, reali sm is deemed complicitous with consumer capitalism. The logic of such arguments traces a spatial and political trajectory: realism does not exist outside but inside culture, and therefore the realist gaze, which adopts a position of distance and observation, is not oppositional to, but complicitous with, that culture, specifically, with the newly formed consumer capitalism of the late nineteenth century.

If one pursues this argument to its end, one might conclude that an aesthetics of immanence, a realism that formally maps the loss of any real or imagined inside/outside relationship between a subject or aesthetic project and culture writ large, would be the only "authentic," because descriptive, option. Realism would not adopt the perspective of the observer but present the real by objectively testifying to all-encompassing social structures. In this light, perspective (an intentional, framed point of view on one's culture from outside of it) is impossible, as is, by implication, an ability to judge it. As Walter Benn Michaels argues of both realism and its critics, "Although transcending your origins in order to evaluate them has been the opening move in cultural criticism, [...] it is surely a mistake to take this move at face value: not so much because you can't really transcend your culture but because, if you could, you wouldn't have any terms of evaluation left. It seems wrong to think of the culture you live in as the object of your affections: you don't like or dislike it, you exist in it" (18). Michaels's strong contextualism achieves a denunciation of the possibility of single-point perspective. Either you adopt the false, Godly eye of single-point perspective or you have no ability to comment, critique, or "see."

In this essay, I argue that trompe l'oeil painting suggests a paralogical model for understanding literary realist perspective, one that refuses to draw hard lines between "inside" and "outside." While it appears to formally map the real without framing or evaluating it, perspective in trompe l'oeil emerges out of--or, more appropriately, evolves from--a recognition of one's immanent position in culture. Trompe l'oeil's two temporal moments of immanence and recognition of immanence require both the loss and gain of perspective, the loss and gain of agency. This analysis of trompe l'oeil offers a way to understand literary realism as attempting to adopt a more complex vantage point upon the culture it describes than much criticism allows. After briefly surveying the history of trompe l'oeil painting, I propose two ways of viewing the genre that follow what I suggest are the two phenomenological stages that the viewer experiences while viewing trompe l'oeil. I conclude by arguing that trompe l'oeil encompasses both ways of seeing and offer a brief reading of one scene in William Dean Howells's novel Hazard of New Fortunes that suggests how we might approach literary realism as attempting the same type of perspective in narrative as trompe l'oeil accomplishes in painting. …

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